The Missing Response!
WHAT IS REPENTANCE?
Repentance is often misunderstood. Some think that the term simply means “to feel sorry for some wrongdoing.” Others think that it means “to make amends for something I did wrong.” Still others think that it means “penance”–a kind of discipline imposed by church authorities because of one’s sins. These ideas fail to grasp the real meaning of the term.
The basic idea in repentance is a change of mind. Notice several Greek authorities. W.E. Vine says that repentance (Gk., m e t a n o i a , metanoia) means “after-thought” or “change of mind” (The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 952). He goes on to note, “In the N.T. the subject chiefly has reference to repentance from sin, and this change of mind involves both a turning from sin and a turning to God” (p. 953). Arndt and Gingrich agree that it simply means “a change of mind” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 513). Another source says that the verb metanoeo (Gk., m e t a n o e w ) means “to think differently” and “signifies a change of thought reflected in conduct. It denotes a mental revolution which affects the course of one’s life” (Boyce W. Blackwelder, Light from the Greek New Testament, p. 46).
Joseph Thayer elaborates in his classic work by saying that metanoeo means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 405). This scholar further stresses the definite change of life that must follow the change of mind: “. . . the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds” (p. 406).
We can see, therefore, that repentance is basically an inner response of the mind or heart or will. It is an inner change of mind and purpose regarding sin and regarding God. But this inner response issues in an outer change of life and conduct. This is a vital point that many have overlooked or refused to recognize. If this fact is denied, we will fail to see changed lives among those who profess to have repented. Without doubt, this is one (among several) reason why so many professing “Christians” are living the same kind of life that they always lived. They talk the same way, they respond the same way, they have the same plans and aspirations as they formerly did, they are involved in the same worldly pleasures, they dress and eat and drive the same way, and they continue in the same materialistic and carnal pursuits. Why? Because they have not had a basic and fundamental change of heart and mind that results in a change of life and conduct.
What specifically does repentance involve? It touches several aspects of our being: the intellect, the emotions, and the will (see Gareth L. Reese, New Testament History: Acts, pp. 122-123). Consider these aspects:
(1) A Change of Intellect. God sent the Holy Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). Through the revelation of truth in God’s Word (John 17:17), the sinner must come to recognize that he is a sinner and has committed sins against God times without number. He must recognize the reality, the truth, the actuality, of such sin as never before and be able to acknowledge his sinfulness before a holy God. The mind or intellect definitely is involved in the realization of who God is, what sin is, what Christ has done as the sin-offering, and how God objectively views the person who is still in his sins. There needs to be that acknowledgment that one has violated God’s will by doing that which ought not to have been done and failing to do what should have been done. Indeed, one has sinned in thought, words, deeds, and attitudes.
(2) A Change of Emotions. Generally people are not very concerned about their sins and their standing with God. They usually are fairly comfortable with their spiritual state and congratulate themselves for their good conduct. Those who do recognize their sin often are not that concerned about change. However, when one does come face to face with the reality of his sin, his emotions will very much become involved. When he sees that he has grieved a loving God and is under the righteous wrath of a holy God, he will realize that he deserves eternal banishment from God’s presence. He will be brokenhearted that he has broken the heart of God. He will be grieved that he has destroyed the perfection that God wanted to work in his life. He will be remorseful that he has fallen into the ways of Satan, the enemy of his soul. He will lament that he has willfully rebelled against the righteous ways of a God who only meant good for him. He will be fearful that he is worthy of everlasting punishment. Yet, through the message of the gospel, he will be hopeful of the mercy and grace of the God of salvation.
(3) A Change of Will. As we noticed above, the term for repent literally means a change of mind. You may remember the words of the “prodigal son” in Christ’s parable when he finally “came to his senses” in the far country: “I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. . .’” (Luke 15:18-19a). Just as the son had a change of will and purposed to return to his father whom he had offended, the sinner today must come to the personal decision and act of the will to seek forgiveness from God through the Lord Jesus. Just as those coming to John’s baptism were “fleeing from the wrath to come” (cf. Matt. 3:7), so people today must consciously flee from God’s coming wrath and seek refuge in His free grace.
WHAT REPENTANCE IS NOT
Some confusion exists in the religious world on the topic of repentance. Sometimes people think of repentance as being something that it is not. Let us consider several of these misconceptions.
(1) Repentance is not Religion. The Scriptures say that “pure and undefiled religion” is good (James 1:27), but it is not repentance. It is the outcome of repentance. Paul addressed the intellectuals at Athens: “I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). Although they were religious, they were still lost in their sins. The Ethiopian was very religious in traveling a great distance to worship God (Acts 8:27), yet he was lost. Cornelius prayed much and was very religious (Acts 10:2,4), yet he too was lost (11:14). Repentance leads to sincere religion, but religion is not repentance.
(2) Repentance is not Conviction of sin. Some may think that since they have a great awareness of sin in their life, they consequently are repenting. It is true that the Holy Spirit was sent to “convict the world concerning sin” (John 16:8), but the conviction of sin is not repentance itself. It is a necessarily preliminary attitude that leads to a repentant heart, but many have been convicted of their wrongs without actually leaving them.
(3) Repentance is not Sorrow for sin. Sometimes people have a degree of grief because of their sin; they may even weep bitter tears of remorse. But this itself is not repentance. One hymn puts it this way:
Could my tears forever flow
Could my tears no respite know,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Paul does say that “sorrow . . . produces a repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10) and this is the correct order. God wants a person to be sorry he has sinned and then repent for them.
(4) Repentance is not an Intellectual Understanding of the Subject. There is a danger that some reading this book may learn much about repentance and then go on with life as usual. God does not just want us to understand something with our mind; He wants us to go further and act upon the knowledge that He gives to us.
(5) Repentance is not mere Reformation. Some people have tried to “make a fresh start” and initiate a “reformation” in their life. They may cast off several sins (smoking, drink, overeating) or take up some good habits (daily Bible reading, family devotions, eating better), and they thereby think that they have repented. These may be the outcome of repentance but this is not repentance itself.
(6) Repentance is not Confession of sin. Sometimes a person will go so far as to confess his sins to God or even other people whom he has wronged. He thereby assumes that he has repented. Elsewhere in our study we shall see that many have been willing to confess their sins, but their hearts and minds have not been deeply touched nor changed.
(7) Repentance is not Restitution. This is another misconception. The result of repentance will be restitution (making amends for wrongs) but the restitution is something else. If restitution were a necessarily ingredient of repentance, one could not repent until he had made full restitution for all of his wrongs. In Scripture, people repented and came to Christ in very short periods of time (usually the same day or hour, and never longer than three days), and they simply would not have had the time to make restitution for their many sins.
Instead of these concepts being repentance, we must look upon repentance as that inner change of heart and mind that is brought about by a sorrow for sin and issues in a changed life. It is the heart decision to turn from sin and self and to turn to God and His will for life.
IS REPENTANCE NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE?
In answer to this question, we must say that repentance is both negative and positive. By this we mean that repentance is both a change of mind regarding sin and a change regarding God. It is a turning from sin to God. Consider the first point for a moment. Some time after Pentecost Peter had another opportunity to speak to a crowd of people in the temple who had gathered because of the healing of the lame man (Acts 3). He challenged the people in this way: “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away” (v. 19a). He then said, “For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (v. 26). These people were to repent, return, and turn from their sins–their wicked ways. If they did not choose to turn from their sins, they could not have repented.
Consider several other examples. The book of Hebrews refers to the “elementary teaching about the Christ” as consisting, in part, of “repentance from dead works” (Heb. 6:1). This probably has reference to “acts that lead to death” (NIV). In other words, they were to repent of sinful deeds that have death as their outcome (cf. Rom. 6:21,23). In Revelation we read of the unrepentant who “did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts” (9:21). These ones “did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols” which they made (v. 20). Later we read of those who “did not repent of their deeds” (16:11b). Even in the preaching of John we see this. He called on the people to repent (Matt. 3:2) and they came and “confessed their sins” (v. 6; cf. Mark 1:4-5). Here they clearly repented by turning from their sins.
All of these examples involved outsiders, but let us note briefly those who already had come to Christ. When one sins as a Christian, he also must repent of those sins specifically. Thus, we read of repenting of leaving one’s first love–probably a failure to continue loving Christ and others (Rev. 2:4-5). Peter said to Simon, who had fallen into envious and proud thoughts: “Repent of this wickedness of yours” (Acts 8:22). Some at Corinth needed to repent of impurity, immorality, and sensuality (2 Cor. 12:21). Those at Laodicea needed to repent of their lukewarmness and apathy (Rev. 3:15-19). In such cases as these, we are not speaking about a general repentance of sin but of specific repentance of actual sins. Are you personally aware of actual sins in your life that need to be repented of and forsaken?
Not only is repentance negative (purposing to turn from sin), it is also positive (we must turn to God). Frequently this idea is brought out in Scripture. For example, Paul was to proclaim the truth to the Jews and Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20). As Paul thinks of the conversion of the believers at Thessalonica, he expresses it this way: “You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). When these people came to Christ, they left their old life that had been devoted to idolatry and they entered a new life that was centered in God and His service. Repentance was both negative (from idols) as well as positive (to God).
Several other passages bring out this same “negative-positive” dimension of repentance. Note Peter’s words, “He [Christ] Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24a). Christ died that we might repent–that we might die to sin and turn to righteousness. This same two-fold emphasis is expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:15: “He [Christ] died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” In other words, this positive and negative aspect is clear in our response to God:
OLD LIFE: Die to sin
NEW LIFE: Live to righteousness
OLD LIFE: Live for self
NEW LIFE: Live for Christ
When one comes to Christ in repentance, he repents of living for himself and he purposes to live for Christ. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures this double emphasis may be seen. The one who repents is the one who “turns from his sin and practices justice and righteousness” (Ezek. 33:14; cf. vv. 115-16). Notice the same emphasis in other passages: Romans 6:17-18; 1 Peter 4:2; Acts 26:17-18; Ephesians 4:22-24; Isaiah 55:7 (this is described much more fully in our study, Basic Change in Christ).
What we are saying is this: When one repents, he has a change of heart and mind regarding his old life of sin and regarding God and His will. He turns away from his former self-orientation and he turns to the Lord as the focus of his life. Repentance is both negative and positive–we turn from something and we turn to someone and something!
TURNING FROM FALSE GODS
We noticed above that the Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). In a similar way, Paul said to the unbelievers at Lystra: “We . . . preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15). Since these were pagans who literally worshipped false gods such as Zeus and Hermes (v. 12), they must leave such idols behind and believe in the true and living God who created all things and whose Son came for the salvation of all. Today we may think that we need not turn from idols since few in America actually bow down before images of wood, stone, or metal.
However, there is a very real sense in which every unbeliever is an idolater. A “god” is whatever we worship and serve (Matt. 4:10), whatever occupies most of our interest, time and attention, whatever is the center of our devotion and affections. In this sense, most people do elevate things and people to the status of “god” in their hearts. A young person may make a boyfriend or girlfriend into a god. A husband may make a wife and a wife may make a husband a god. A mother may regard her children as her gods because they are the ultimate objects of her devotion. A father may look upon his business or his position as a god for he gives most of his time, energies, and devotion to his employment. Many people look upon music as their god. Others regard sports or television or an automobile or travel as their gods. Surely sex is a chief god in our age and in every age. Therefore, whatever we give our ultimate and highest allegiance to becomes our idol or god.
Scripture itself refers to various “gods” that people give themselves to and serve:
- Money (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13-14; 2 Tim. 3:2).
- Material things (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5).
- Bodies (Romans 1:24-25).
- Sex (Romans 1:24-25).
- Earthly things (Phil. 3:19).
- Appetite or Stomach (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 16:18; Luke 12:19; 1 Cor. 15:32; Matt. 6:31-32).
- Family (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26).
- Pleasure (2 Tim. 3:4).
- Self (Luke 12:21; Mark 8:34).
When one comes to Christ for salvation, God calls upon him to turn from these false gods and renounce their allegiance. They must no longer have the dominance in his life. Apostate Israel had “set up their idols in their hearts” (Ezek. 14:3) and “their heart continually went after their idols” (20:16). Likewise, people today have idolatrously given their hearts and lives to these pursuits, pleasures, and pastimes.
While some of these may be legitimate in a limited way, when one gives himself to them wholly, they become idols that must be renounced. For instance, a husband must love his wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25) and a wife must submit to and reverence her husband (vv. 22,33), but a spouse must not be given unreserved allegiance that it due to God alone. A father and mother must love and care for their children (Eph. 6:4), but ultimate love and devotion must be given only to Christ (Matt. 10:37). A father must provide for his family (1 Tim. 5:8), but he may make his job into a “god” that consumes virtually all of his time and interest. A house, a car, a garden, clothes, and food may be legitimate in their place, but generally they become false “gods” to those in the world. You see, God is “a jealous God” whose very name is “Jealous” (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24), and He will tolerate no one or nothing in our lives that take His rightful place of supremacy and devotion. Jesus declared, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matt. 4:10). He alone is God and we must acknowledge this fact by giving Him a heart that is “completely His” or “fully committed to Him” (2 Chron. 16:9, NASB, NIV).
Therefore, in repentance, one turns away from the wrongful and false “gods” in his life that have been consuming his love and devotion. He then turns in faith to the true and living God who promises him forgiveness. This is the essence of repentance.
REPENTANCE FOR JESUS IS LORD
Repentance is also connected with the fact that Jesus is Lord. A person before coming to Christ seeks to direct his own life. He wants to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it, in the way he wants to do it. In effect, he is his own “lord” and “ruler.” Like the citizens in Jesus’ parable, we say, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14b). God finds this insubordinate attitude to be intolerable and the essence of sin. This is why He requires one to acknowledge His Son as Lord.
We can see the emphasis on Christ’s Lordship in Scripture. On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared, “God has made Him [Jesus] both LORD and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). When the gospel went to Antioch, we read that some were “preaching the LORD Jesus” and those “who believed turned to the LORD” (Acts 11:20,21). When the jailer asked what he must do to be saved, Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the LORD Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). Paul refers to salvation in these words: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as LORD, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). He further stated, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as LORD” (2 Cor. 4:5). As he refers back to the time of their salvation, Paul writes, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the LORD, so walk in Him” (Col. 2:6). The Lordship of Christ definitely was a chief element in the message of salvation.
What does the Lordship of Christ mean? It means that Jesus is the Supreme Ruler and Master over all. Remember that He declared, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Further, Jesus is the Owner of all those whom He has bought with His blood (cf. Rev. 5:9). He is His servant’s Lord in a special sense. Further yet, Jesus is Deity. The Romans considered the Caesar as their “god” and “lord.” However, the followers of Christ recognize what Thomas recognized when he said, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The term “Lord” (Gk., kurios) is a very significant one that means we acknowledge Jesus as our Ruler, our Master, our Owner, and our God.
When one comes to the point of repentance, the Lordship of Christ is particularly relevant. In repentance, one sorrows that he has committed treason against Christ as Lord and King. He is grieved that he has been his own “master” and “lord.” In repentance, one decides to crucify self and embraces the Lordship of Christ over every aspect of his life. In repentance, he has a “change of mind” regarding Jesus. He is confessed as Lord of the heavens and the earth. He is acknowledged as Lord of one’s own life and he will submit to His absolute rule and dominion. In repentance, one chooses to submit to Christ’s will and Word. Jesus asked, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). He could say this since Lordship necessarily entails entire submission and obedience. On another occasion, Jesus said, “Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of the Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). It is one thing to say that Jesus is Lord, and it is another to carry this confession out in practical obedience.
In view of this necessity of repenting and confessing Jesus as Lord, it is amazing that in our day there are many who say the sinner can accept Jesus as Savior from sin but not acknowledge Jesus as Lord of life. They claim that all one needs to do is to “believe” that “Jesus died on the cross” for his sins–and this is sufficient to save one from hell. (Most will also say that he can henceforth do nothing to lose this supposed salvation!) In view of what we have learned above, we should be able to see that one cannot have Jesus as Savior if he refuses to have Jesus as Lord. The essence of repentance itself is the exchanging of one master (self and sin) for another (Jesus). If one will not acknowledge His Lordship today, he will on the coming Great Day. Paul writes, “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).